A/N: I promised a sequel to Secrets of Summer for several people so here it is, part one of two. I hope you guys enjoy it!
Under the Sun
He held his noose in his hand, dangling it between his fingers, the black, silken material tenderly caressing each knuckle.
He was free.
He sat on the stone church steps and looked out onto the gravel bathed in orange street lights. It wasn't heroic or honorable. In fact, it was downright cowardly, but he knew he couldn't go through with it. Just one look, one conversation, and she cut the ties that bound him so tightly he doubted the blood pumping from his heart reached his fingertips. She saved him from making the biggest mistake of his life. He'd been pushed into a hole and just as they were about to throw the final chunks of dirt over his eyes and engulf him entirely, she came into sight and gave him the strength to dig himself out.
"So, what now?" The voice behind him was soft and comforting and for a moment, Tripp almost felt sorry for the rough times he gave his younger cousin on the Vanderbilt football field. He gave a simple shrug. His shoulders felt weightless enough to do that now. "Grandfather is furious, you know."
"Yea, but it was the right thing to do." There were few moments in his life where he was certain he did the right thing. There were almost always what ifs and second choices. What if he hadn't let Blair go back to New York that summer and forget all about him? What if he'd chosen to go for his masters and Ph.D in archaeology at NYU instead of law school at Yale? Yes, he had moments of doubts and times when he wondered how different his life would be if he had taken a different course, a right turn here instead of hanging a left.
All that said, at 24, he had done a total of two things that he was certain he would never come to regret - falling in love with Blair Waldorf, and walking away from that long, somber church aisle. The fact that neither he nor Maureen shed a single tear only further affirmed his decision. When he strode into the ladies' dressing room and saw her with her veil drawn back, he knew. It wasn't easy, but it had to be done. Their eyes met in the vanity mirror and for the first time since the beginning of their engagement, they had a mutual understanding.
This was going to be a marriage that neither of them truly wanted and one that neither would miss.
She gave him a kiss on the cheek and even as he apologized, the lace from her glove scratched the side of his face. "You're not the boy I fell in love with. You haven't been for a while now. I think he got lost a few summers ago in Connecticut." She pressed his mother's ring into his palm and whispered, "good luck" before walking out the door and leaving him to stare at his reflection. He could hardly recognize himself; he must have aged ten years since he had first tackled Nate for a petite brunette and yet he knew it had hardly been three years.
He felt the life seep back into his complexion the moment he undid his bow tie and he held the blasted thing in his hand now, crushing it as it had crushed him.
"Maureen's being real cool about the whole thing. I heard her talking to her bridesmaids earlier."
"Are you going to say anything other than 'yea'?"
"Sorry, Nate. I'm afraid I'm not very good company right now."
"It's all right, man, I understand. If you need me though, just give me a ring. I'll probably just grab a movie with Blair or something." His cousin gave him a supportive pat on the back before ducking into the limo by the sidewalk.
Right then, even after he threw his future in politics in the fire along with his relationship with his college girlfriend, his grandfather and, by extension, his entire family, Tripp couldn't think of anything he'd rather do than 'just grab a movie with Blair.'
* * *
He walked back onto campus, shame-faced with a few documents in hand, and looked for the few professors he had from undergrad who might still remember him well enough to give him a recommendation. Law school was out of the question now - that was part of "the plan" from which he ran last minute. He hadn't heard a word from grandfather, and he was beginning to doubt if he ever would again
He sat at the back of the lecture hall and listened to the end of the introductory lecture on the Bronze Age and chewed on his finger nails, an old habit that had crept back just as suddenly as all the knowledge he'd pushed to the back of his brain rushed toward the foreground. He blew off his last semester as a senior, focused as he was with law school applications and all that. But just before - that fall semester with the bulk of his research for his honors thesis, he was challenged intellectually more than he had ever been in his life. It was exciting and stimulating, he could practically feel the sparks jumping across the synapses in his brain.
Just sitting there, listening to a lecture for lowly, easily impressed freshmen, he felt the small tingles running along the back of his neck again. He could feel the dirt beneath his fingertips and mentally answered all the questions the lecturer shot off. Yes, that was the- No, what kind of answer was tha- It proves that man had evolved from-
God, what had he been doing with his life these past two years?
He was so absorbed that he didn't notice the moment the lecture was over, the Power Point shut off, and the students eagerly poured out of the hall. He felt the tap of a cane on his calf and started to find his thesis advisor looking down at him.
"Ah, so the prodigal son returns."
While it's true that he had only been on the other side of campus, Tripp understood. "Feels good to be back, professor."
* * *
His grandfather was apparently not the only person who could get things done with a mere phone call. A lunch, a letter of recommendation from the director of Yale's archaeology department and a personal phone call from a prominent researcher in his field and he was a shoe-in for NYU. By September, he had read up enough to be ready for his first class and was settled into his (to his parents' dismay), beautiful Park Slope apartment. The view of Manhattan was amazing and sometimes, as he watched the glittering skyline with a small tumbler of scotch in his system, he wondered what Blair Waldorf was doing at that specific moment, just across the river.
Had he not been a Vanderbilt in his own right, it would have been a bit too "Great Gatsby" for his taste.
He actually found that website everyone was talking about. "Gossip Girl." Truly, the thing was a horrendous mess. He had higher hopes for teenagers with such good breeding but it seemed that in this demoralizing society, even the creme de la creme surrendered themselves to such boorish activity. And his Blair, he thought bitterly as he took another swig, fell victim to it all. If he had known what she was going through, what people said about her, he would have-
But what could he have done? She made it perfectly clear that she didn't want him or his help. It's just a shame that he couldn't quite help himself but to get tangled up in her life again. It would be all over soon, though. She would be gone to New Haven and he... well, he'll be walking down Park Avenue, tracing her footsteps.
* * *
It must have been fate. He was certain even as he stood there with his breath knocked out of him.
There she was, in the middle of Washington Square Park with the fountain as a backdrop, dressed in a wine colored sheath, white headband and pearls. He knew he was late for his class but how could he not stop and stare at the vision - because that's what it must have been. Why would Blair Waldorf be caught in the middle of his campus when she should be traipsing around his old alma mater?
The doubt, however, didn't stop him from turning and practically sprinting from her sight when that porcelain face looked up from her phone.
He had class to get to, after all. That's what he told himself anyway.
* * *
"You're a difficult man to track down, Tripp Vanderbilt."
She slipped delicately onto the desk in front of him, her hands clasped onto the edge and her body leaning forward just so with her curls teasing his arm. His hand twitched twice at the contact. "I assure you, Blair, that I would never try to escape you, of all people."
"Oh, is that why you turned and ran the minute you saw me in the park the other day? I must say I'm surprised at you, Tripp. I've never known you to be one to run."
"Yes, well, I seem to be doing that a lot lately."
"Ah yes, the Maureen thing. Though I can't say there's a lot of love lost there. The two of us never seemed to really see eye to eye." There was something different about her. Ruthless, cold. She inspected her finger nails like a cliche villain from a movie and he wondered whatever happened to that girl who jumped into his arms after a football game. "So what are you doing here anyway, Tripp? I imagine William can't be too pleased with you skipping out on your family legacy."
"Archaeology. Ph.D program." She looked back at him and for just a moment, he fancied, that look in her eye was familiar and the smile on her lips sincere. Then slowly, she reached her hand up to his face, her fingertips brushing against his cheekbones then combing back his hair. He basked in her affection, eyes closed.
"I'm proud of you, Tripp. And happy."
* * *
"Let's get married." It slipped out when they were lying in bed one night and she just looked so beautiful that he couldn't help himself. He reached for her hand under the sheets and pulled her close. It was easy for him to forget that she was only nineteen years old when he couldn't remember a time before Blair Waldorf. Then there was the way she carried herself.
She had been an outcast, much to his surprise, when she first arrived at college. After all, she had always been the center of attention, or at the very least, the center of his attention. All of a sudden, it was as though someone had turned the lights out and no one could see her anymore. No one except that crazy roommate of hers.
He still remembered that night when she showed up at his apartment, drenched in rain, after ignoring his calls for two weeks after she met him at his tiny corner office in the library. She had thrown herself into him with such force that he fell back a few steps before finding his balance. She'd sobbed it all into his chest and he took it in straight to his heart. Every word.
When he walked her back to her dorm the next day, Georgina opened the door and her smile instantly dropped at the sight of him. At least the girl was smart enough to know not to mess with a Vanderbilt, even an exiled one at that. The two girls eventually came to an understanding, but Blair still spent a few nights a week at his place.
Last month, she started calling it "home."
She held the sheets to her chest and propped herself up on an elbow. "I would have settled for a 'Merry Christmas' instead, Tripp." He turned himself to face her and placed a hand on the curve of her hip. She fit perfectly to him and was warm through the sheets.
"Since when does Blair Waldorf settle for anything?"
She rolled her eyes and bit back a laugh before rolling them onto his back. "That's true. I even went for the superior Vanderbilt." He couldn't hold back the proud grin - even if his family had renounced him and he had given up his name - and he leaned up to kiss her left dimple before turning them over.
He kissed away her laugh even as his hands got tangled up in her hair.
* * *
Maureen was never one for occasions. She preferred a quiet meal and wordless smiles and because he was very much the same, their lives had passed by quietly and inconsequentially.
Blair was anything but.
He never made much of his birthday. Neither did his family, or his girlfriend and so for all his years of existence, it was just any other day of the year. Open celebration of oneself was, it appeared, tacky.
So Tripp was not expecting the bright banner, the balloons, the cake and the cheers when he entered his little office. And there in the middle of it all, was Blair, cheering him on. He stood for a moment, his hand still on the doorknob, surrounded by the friends he made in the department - friends who never ask about using his family's lodge in Aspen, friends who pat his shoulders when he complains about the pressures of being in his family rather than roll their eyes. He turned his face away to hide the emotion wreaking havoc in his jaw and brow.
Then he ran up to her, arms around her waist lifting her far above him where she belonged, and spun her into a kiss. "Happy birthday, baby," she murmured against his lips and he kissed her again, pouring out all the love and gratitude he held for her that threatened to burst through his chest.
She pulled away and felt the box thrust into his hands. "Open it!" She had that look in his eyes that he loved so much - the mischievous, sparkling look that watched as a plan of hers successfully unraveled before her eyes. Feeling much like he did when he was eight and his mother planned a secret party for the two of them and his maid, he opened it like he did that train set (his Grandfather disapproved of useless toys), and, to his surprise, he pulled out what looked to be a whip.
"Vanderbilt, you sly dog!" It was snatched from his hand and passed around like show-and-tell.
Amidst the cheers and embarrassment, he looked at her in confusion. She blushed bright red under the attention and he thought it was lovely. "Of course you'd take that out first." And she reached in and pulled the tan hat from the box and placed it on his head. "Some girls in the dorm were watching this show so I figured I'd try to, you know, join them and this guy on it, Marshall, gave his best friend the same thing for, you know, Indiana Jones and..." she trailed off. "It's stupid."
She'd remembered, even when he forgot, what he loved and dreamed of as a young, idealistic teen. He tilted her head up by the chin and held her eyes with absolute certainty before letting out the words, "I love it. I love you."
"Get a room, you two! It's time to drink!" He tore his attention away, her smile still hidden in the chest pocket of his polo, his arms still around her waist.
"How did you guys manage to sneak a keg past security?"
"Your girlfriend's magical, man. That one's a keeper."
Yea she really is, he thought. He looked down at her, his eyes tender with affection that seemed to grow exponentially, and when she looked back, he asked, "a keg?"
She shrugged, "it seemed to be a hit at Humphrey's party." Right, Humphrey. That was a disaster they didn't mention. At his worry, she rolled her eyes, "Don't worry. There's Dom at home."
Tripp had never been so happy to be born.
* * *
"You should go. I mean, what can it hurt? Isn't that what you told Nate last year for the family reunion?"
So he went, a firm hold on her small hand the entire time. They matched beautifully, he in a khaki colored Armani picked out from his mother and she in a light blue sun dress. Her white, wide-brimmed hat set off his crisp button down.
The reception wasn't what he expected. His cousins clapped him on the back, uncles and aunts alike shook hands with him and even Grandfather welcomed him back with open arms, just as he had with Nate. It was strange - he was never the impressive Vanderbilt. No one paid special attention to him because there really wasn't anything too special about him.
The weekend July retreat was a celebration of the family history and he found little to celebrate except his current, dream-like affair with Blair Waldorf. He could hold her hand as they strolled through the gardens and sit beside her at dinner. Like many of the wives and girlfriends, she stood on the terraces that faced the blocked off field and smiled and waved when he scored a goal.
He could have done without his Aunt Anne's withering glare and Nate's lingering glances, but sacrifices had to be made, prices paid. And oh, what he wouldn't give...
The backlash he received from that end of the family was soothed by the delight on Grandfather's face at the sight of them together. He even had a dress especially made for her for the mid-summer ball and as she drifted down those stairs towards him in baby blue chiffon, his heart gave a leap. In his plain, black and white tux, he felt unworthy as he bent and kissed her hand. She pecked him lightly on the cheek.
He tried his best to ignore the way Nate's blue dress shirt matched her dress perfectly.